The day began early for most Zimbabweans as hundreds lined up at dawn to vote in a hastily-called presidential election that could prove as significant as the one that heralded independence in 1980.

Since that day, Robert Gabriel Mugabe — an 89-year-old liberation hero — and his ZANU-PF party have ruled the country with an iron fist. “There is no other party that has conducted a revolution to redeem the country from the colonial grip,” Mr. Mugabe said in a press conference a day before polls, “It’s a people’s party, it is not like other parties.”

Yet, this time, Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, Mr. Mugabe’s rival for more than a decade, feels that the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC-T) has a real chance to form a government in Harare. In 2008, Mr. Tsvangirai polled more votes than Mr. Mugabe, but refused to participate in a run-off after security forces brutalised his supporters and killed nearly 200 people in the ensuing violence. Zimbabwe’s neighbours convinced the two sides into an uneasy unity government in which the MDC controlled finance, but the ZANU-PF maintained its hold on agriculture, mining and the security sector.

“It’s the delayed run-off from 2008. It is time to complete the change we always fought for,” Mr. Tsvangirai remarked wryly as he cast his vote at the Mt. Pleasant polling centre in a relatively affluent part of Harare. “After all the conflicts, the stalemates, the suspicion, the hostility, I think there is a sense of calmness that Zimbabwe will be able to move forward again.”

The run-up to the elections has not been without incident. The MDC was denied fair access to the state-run media, much-needed security sector reforms are still pending, voter rolls are still incomplete and the opposition’s election chief was jailed a few days before elections. In an afternoon press conference, MDC Minister Tendai Biti feared ballot boxes would be tampered with, and claimed village headmen were forcing villagers to vote for the ZANU-PF.

Zimbabweans acknowledge that the country’s broken economy desperately needs fixing, but are divided over the best candidate for the task. Mr. Tsvangirai has gained great traction amongst the youth and urban centres, while Mr. Mugabe continues to control the countryside. Yet, the nation-wide urge for change is tempered by the success of ZANU-PF’s land reforms, making this a difficult election to predict.

Ambiguous legacy

At polling stations across Harare, voters said they were tired of the bickering that characterised the unity government and hoped that the election would grant one party a clear mandate.

“Arguments. They have achieved arguments for four years,” said Ameena, a 26-year-old from Mbare, a densely populated southern suburb of Harare, when asked to name a major success of the unity government, “If they had a passion for the country, they would have sat down and agreed, it is the nation that is suffering.”

Mbare is a collection of dilapidated council housing, broken sewerage and flickering electricity. Shawasha Flats, where Ms. Ameena lives with her husband and son, is tin-roofed multi-story building of tiny rooms and narrow stairwells; a satellite television receiver affixed to each window grill.

From 1998 to 2008, Zimbabwe’s economy contracted by 45 per cent even as inflation peaked at a mind-boggling 231 million per cent. Industry collapsed, the national currency was replaced by the U.S. dollar and jobs dried up. While the economy has since rebounded, 75 per cent of the population is self-employed like Ms. Ameena, who makes fresh chips for a living, selling them for a dollar a plate. Most days, she earns about $15 in profit, or about $450 a month, and pays $50 as rent for her home.

Mr. Tsvangirai has blamed the ZANU-PF’s 33-year tenure for the implosion of the economy, but Ms. Ameena’s faith in Mr. Mugabe is intact. “My brother was given a farm in the ZANU-PF land reform,” she said, referring to the ruling party’s signature policy in which land was seized from a small set of white farmers and distributed among 170,000 black families, “First he had five cows, now he has 35 cows.”

Mr. Mugabe’s land reform initially sent the economy into a tailspin, but independent studies now confirm that agriculture and livelihoods have been strengthened by the move. Mr. Tsvangirai’s move to dollarise the economy played a crucial role, and from 2009-2011 agricultural exports grew by 101 per cent according to World Bank.

“If the economy says you are getting land, take it,” Ms. Ameena said, “Once you get land, you never give it up. Land was the reason for the war. We wanted to be masters of our destiny, not just workers on a farm.”

Hoping for change

At a primary school in the affluent neighbourhood of Borrowdale, voters queue up outside the polling booth near the tennis court. “We are all carrying our own pens,” said Neil Padmire, producing a ballpoint from his breast pocket, “There is a rumour about their pens — the ink becomes invisible in four hours.”

The rumour began when Baba Jukwa, an anonymous pro-MDC facebook account, claimed the pens were supplied by Nikuv — a secretive Israeli company involved in building Zimbabwe’s population registration system.

Mr. Padmire, who is white, and his black neighbours are convinced that the ZANU-PF will try its best to rig the elections.

“Tsvangirai won the elections in 2008 and in 2005,” said Alice, a young black chartered accountant, pointing to widespread allegations of electoral fraud that were levelled at the ZANU-PF. “We are hoping against hope for change.”

“The problems began in the mid 1990s,” said Alice, describing the period when Zimbabwe liberalised the economy, reduced public spending and drew sanctions for its role in the multi-national conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

“During the hyperinflation [in the 2000s] my family lost everything,” she said, “My father had worked all his life, but one day he woke up and his pension policy at Old Mutual was worth 50 pence. There was no bread in the markets. We shopped across the South African border.”

For now, both parties expect to sweep the polls. Mr. Mugabe has said he felt as confident of winning as he did in 1980. Mr. Tsvangirai’s representatives have invited the press to their inauguration party. Despite the fears of violence, voters have been seized by the pageantry of electoral process. “I’m cleaning my house,” said Molene, a 34-year-old seamstress in Mbare, “So I can put on my dress and go vote.”

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